Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Panzer Operations - Hermann Hoth

Title: Panzer Operations
Author: Hermann Hoth
ISBN: 978-1-61200-269-9
Publisher: Casemate Books
Pages: 215

Hermann Hoth is considered by many to have been one of the greatest armoured commanders serving in the German Army during the Second World War. A veteran of the First World War, he commanded Panzer Group 3 during the initial drive into Russia, following which he was given responsibility for 17th Army and subsequently 4th Panzer Army. Despite being the recipient of the Swords to the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross for exceptional bravery and leadership, he was blamed by Hitler for the loss of Kiev in Nov 1943 and relieved of command.

In 1956, Hoth drafted his memoires relating to the operations of 3 Panzer Group from the commencement of Barbarossa (June 1941 - the invasion of Russia) until October, 1941. This book is the first translation of said memoirs into english and represents an outstanding assessment of not only the operational command of armoured forces but also the interaction (both positive and negative) between Hitler, the strategic German Army command and the operational units. His observations on the delineation between ‘strategic’ and ‘operational’ lines of command as well as the overarching political considerations driving decision making are both relevant and insightful even today.  

Throughout, Hoth centres his assessments on the teachings of such giants of military thought as Scharnhorst, Clausewitz and Moltke and the necessity to learn from the lessons of the past. He also assesses the climate within which the German military planners operated at the strategic level – namely one in which Hitler continuously fluctuated in clearly identifying the main objective of the campaign: the destruction of the Red Army and the capture of Moscow or the economic crippling of the Soviet Union; the challenge therein being the fact that one is clearly military and the other socio-economic in nature. The vacillation between the two would hamper operations throughout the early days of the campaign. 

The meat of the book however, centres upon the effective command of armoured forces in the field and the best use that may be made of them. He draws extensively from the pre-invasion assessments made of the Soviet Union, its transportation infrastructure, military and anticipated response to invasion. He also discusses various invasion planning courses of action that were developed by the German High Command. These are fascinating as they are outstanding examples of high level planning and the process by which they were considered and rejected. Included was an option to combine all armoured and motorized infantry divisions into one massive mailed fist that would drive forward from a start point on the northern flank of Army Group Centre directly towards Leningrad thereby cutting off Russian Baltic forces and securing the Northern flank. Following this, the mobile forces would drive southwards cutting off Moscow and the Russian Army from its resupply and reinforcement options from the Urals and forcing it to fight on reversed fronts; all this while Army Group’s Centre and South would drive inexorably forward pinning Russian units in place. Such an example emphasizes the bold and risk accepting nature of effective armoured operations. 

The main body of the text traces the operations of Panzer Group 3 during the initial period of the Operation Barbarossa and the factors that affected his decision making. In his conclusion, Hoth encapsulates the essence and fundamental tenants of the operational command of mobile units and what are the key factors in the achievement of success (in relation to the campaign in Russia). Additionally, he reiterates the absolutely critical requirement to clearly establish and maintain the aim of operations regardless of the temptations that may present along the way. He includes in his work a series of annexes outlining key assessments and orders that he received and drafted during the course of the campaign. He also includes a discussion on the decision to undertake the final drive on Moscow in October, 1941 incorporating/emphasizing the responsibility of the commander in the decision making process.
Hoth’s writing style is direct and to the point; yet it remains very readable and thought-provoking. He is a commander who cares very deeply about his soldiers and their well-being but also for the mentorship and development of his leaders. Included in this book is an annex by the translator that assesses of Hoth’s political and social views. I found this to be somewhat jarring as it seemed out of place given that this was an operational treatise written by Hoth and not a biography; however, it is very much a sidebar issue. I would strongly recommend this book for any leader wanting to clearly understand what command (highlighted by bold, decisive action) entails in an operational context.